Don't Overlook the Essentials

Your mission, Mr. President, is to shake Palestinians and Israelis out of their self-defeating attitude, which accepts the current pathology as predestined.

On Monday, March 12, 1979, one of your predecessors, president Jimmy Carter, met with the Israeli cabinet and demonstrated to its members the enormity of the influence wielded by the leader of the most important power in the world. President Carter asked his hosts to compromise on the two outstanding issues in the peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt that had taken place over the previous 18 months. Both were minor problems compared to the substantial agreements the parties had reached: Egypt's request to set up a liaison office in the Gaza Strip and its unwillingness to grant Israel preferred client status in petroleum purchases. Nonetheless, prime minister Menachem Begin refused to concede on these points.

President Carter was blunt with the Israeli cabinet: "Your refusal will have tragic consequences. Your agreement to the Egyptian demands is a supreme national interest of the United States." This was the first time, Mr. President, that most members of Israel's cabinet had been exposed to president Carter's style.

Until then, only the team that handled negotiations with Egypt had experienced it. The experience was formative: the Israeli ministers became worried over the possibility of a conflict between the president and the prime minister.

The issues were resolved a day later in talks between foreign minister Moshe Dayan and secretary of state Cyrus Vance: A compromise was reached in which Egypt gave up its request for a liaison office in Gaza (a pyrrhic victory for Israel, in retrospect), and Israel withdrew its demand for preferential treatment in oil purchases from Egypt.

Mr. President, the lessons of that meeting must be learned: First, distinguish between the essential and the trivial, between a momentary public relations gain and a genuine long-term return. Second, formulate the correct negotiating strategy. Third, know how to talk to Israel's government.

Mr. President, when you visit Jerusalem with an agenda whose top item is pressuring Ehud Olmert to remove a few outposts or get rid of a few roadblocks, you are missing the point. Such steps, however necessary they might be, will not advance Israel and the Palestinians toward a peace agreement.

The fact that the focus is on such steps is a sort of surrender to the insistence of both sides on entrenching themselves in their basic positions - an obduracy that has spilled their blood and caused them suffering for the past 40 years.

The approach taken in the Oslo Accords, which were reached without American involvement, failed because it put off dealing with the main issues in dispute until sometime in the future. The "conflict management" approach, whose goal is to "lower the flames of the violence," has not proven itself; the result has been the exacerbation and further complication of the conflict.

The third way - dealing with the core issues - has not been tried to date, and you are advised, Mr. President, to opt for that path to leave your mark on history. On the face of it, this is a recipe destined for failure: How will Israelis and Palestinians reach an agreement on borders, the future of the settlements, Jerusalem and the right of return? However, fear of trying to crack these tough nuts has brought the parties, utterly spent, to this hopeless situation.

The grammar of negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis developed out of their acquiescence to the ongoing, neverending nature of the conflict. Both sides have become accustomed to spilling each other's blood and embittering each other's lives, and this experience determines the nature of the friction between them.

When the view that the conflict is like a chronic disease, and all that can be done about it is to alleviate the suffering once in a while, becomes entrenched in their subconscious, Israelis and Palestinians sink into a rut of desperation that drains their will to extricate themselves from the mire.

Your mission, Mr. President, is to shake them out of their self-defeating attitude, which accepts the current pathology as predestined. Exercise your influence and use the dependence of both sides on your country in order to motivate Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to embark on talks on a final-status agreement.

Take advantage of your visit in order to imbue a new spirit, to dictate a different agenda, made up of the core issues. And remember: Speak to your hosts forcefully, but do not shame them. Otherwise, your visit will only be remembered for the traffic problems it caused.